Experts: Political Prerecords Here to Stay

Despite rising public irritation, the use of automated prerecorded calls to support political campaigns is growing thanks to decreasing per-call costs, political consultants and observers said last week.

Political marketing moves into high gear in advance of the Nov. 2 presidential election as well as congressional, state and local contests. Prerecords, which can be sent for 2 to 4 cents per call, typically see more action in this period because their cost-effectiveness is attractive to candidates with limited campaign war chests.

Total volume of “robocalls,” as they are known, during this campaign season is difficult to estimate, said Donald P. Green, professor of political science at Yale. Green is co-author of “Get Out the Vote,” a book that included research showing that robocalls are ineffective at encouraging people to vote, though he said they might influence voting decisions.

Sending robocalls costs about half what it did in the 2000 presidential campaign, Green said. That could mean more use in 2004, though it remains to be seen how prevalent they become.

Every political campaign uses prerecorded calls, said Wayne Johnson, vice president of the American Association of Political Consultants, Washington. Given their inexpensive nature compared with other media, prerecords are in some cases the only way a campaign can reach out to voters.

Broadcast media are becoming less attractive to political campaigns because the reach of the major networks is declining, Johnson said. Cable, satellite and premium channels have divided the broadcast audience.

“It's a much more fragmented market,” he said. “You can't be sure when you put an ad on TV or radio that it's going to reach the target audience.”

In battleground states, campaigns are buying every available media, and that includes prerecords, said Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics. Sabato said he has heard that “tons” of political prerecords are scheduled for October.

The novelty of prerecords, which made them effective in past campaigns, is wearing off, he said. However, campaigns are using their most effective “hooks,” such as Bill Clinton and Barbara Bush, for voice talent in the calls.

Political prerecords typically are exempt from telemarketing laws because they are considered political, not commercial, speech. But legislation is possible in certain states and circumstances, Sabato said. If voters get irritated enough, they could spur lawmakers to ban robocalls.

Political consultants likely would resist such efforts. It's important to maintain the distinction between commercial speech and protected political speech, and to keep the door open to political communication, Johnson said.

A battle over such a law has begun in North Dakota, which bans all unsolicited prerecorded calls — including political and charitable ones — unless they are introduced by a live operator who asks permission to play the prerecorded message. Use of prerecorded calls during the presidential primaries in January by Democratic candidate Wesley Clark earned a warning from North Dakota attorney general Wayne Stenehjem.

On Sept. 13, ccAdvertising, Herndon, VA, petitioned the Federal Communications Commission to issue a statement against North Dakota's law. According to ccAdvertising, a company that uses prerecords for surveys and political campaigns, North Dakota's law is contrary to federal rules, which exempt political and charity prerecords.

The petition asks the FCC to declare that its rules pre-empt state law. During the launch of the national no-call list in 2003, the FCC said that state no-call rules differing from federal rules “almost certainly” would be pre-empted.

A few days after ccAdvertising filed its petition, North Dakota sued the company in state court over its prerecorded-calling activities. A lawyer for ccAdvertising said he could not comment on the litigation.

Parrell Grossman, director of the North Dakota attorney general's consumer protection and antitrust division, also declined comment on the case. However, he said North Dakota consumers find political prerecords to be just as offensive as commercial calls.

“One shouldn't start with the presumption that federal law is what the law should be in each of the sovereign states,” Grossman said.

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